Hold onto your hats! For number and variety of neat and interesting teaching/learning events, the past eleven days unquestionably break all records. And the great trick will be for me to get them all swiftly onto the e-waves, because 36 hours from now I will be en route for a likewise exciting eleven days discussing the teaching and learning of probability, geometry and rational numbers with Guy Brousseau in Bordeaux, which is not likely to be conducive to clarity of recall. So here goes!
The lead-off event was on February 16, and came about through the CCML project. That's Creating a Community of Mathematics Learners, which is precisely what was up. In this case the community elements being brought together were high school and university. We had as campus guests teachers from a number of schools in several districts, who spent part of their time visiting classes and part in conversation. The first conversation (over coffee and scones in the Math Lounge) included Don Marshall, whose interest in connecting with high schools goes back to well before his chairmanship, and Brooke Miller, who knows more about admissions technicalities than the rest of us put together. A bunch of cogent questions and answers sailed back and forth in that period. Then, after a couple more hours of observing, the visitors reassembled for lunch with a batch of faculty members, including most of the ones whose classes they had been visiting. That got sufficiently numerous so that I couldn't eavesdrop on all of the conversations (frustrating!), but they produced a very positive hum, and some of the bits and snatches I picked up were decidedly interesting. The asymmetry produced by the guest/host distinction most certainly did not imply that the flow of information was uni-directional. And by way of further symmetrizing, several of our guests extended a hearty invitation to any of us to come and visit them in their own classrooms, which strikes me as a jolly good idea.
Next day, next event. This one needs a little lead-in. Last June I wrote a newsletter chortling gleefully about the department's having received a PFF (= Preparing Future Faculty) grant from the National Science Foundation which would enable us to resume some of the activities we had so much benefited from with the previous such grant (from the Pew Charitable Foundation.) Since when there has been a notable silence from me on the subject. That's because owing to a slight misunderstanding there was a small glitch in the budget which (obviously) had to be sorted out before we could go about spending any of it. Now I can report with much pleasure that not only did we iron out the glitch, but in the process we produced some radical improvements. And as of Thursday we began acting on them. Specifically, that's when we re-launched the Dinner Conversation series at which a bunch of graduate students and a bunch of faculty members (this time five of each) gather around a table at the Mar Lai Restaurant and simply talk for a couple of hours about life in the department as seen from the two different perspectives. Oh, yes, and eat. I won't report on the conversation itself, because it's all written up at http://www.math.washington.edu/~warfield/dinners/dinner7.html So all I need to say is that it was a joy to get back to this particular form of communication.
Several days passed before the next event, and it was another PFF one. This time it involved one of our partner institutions: Seattle University, which has an Undergraduate Math Club much in need of good speakers. Given that there are many graduate students much in need of a good audience upon which to hone their speaking skills, this seemed a situation about which action should be taken. Marshall Hampton, who is on the PFF steering committee, took the initial plunge and led off with a very nice talk on Celestial Mechanics. He ranged gracefully from Stonehenge to Apollo rocket orbits, with stop-offs at a few centuries between. Even those of us whose minds had been blown by the concept of a map with a rotating frame of reference could firmly grasp the fact that this is a field in which deep and significant results can be arrived at by working with basic, straightforward concepts. Working HARD with them!
Next day, once again, next event. A Brown Bag, this one. Our guest was Elham Kazemi, the new kid on the block in the College of Education. I handed her the task of making a bunch of mathematicians understand what it is to do research in mathematics education, and she rose nobly to the occasion. For me what stood out was the degree of overlap between what she does as a teacher and as a researcher, because what she has a passion for lies neatly in the intersection. She is fascinated by student thinking and the process of inducing that fascination in the students' teachers. This involves taking teachers layer by layer from the "Isn't that awful?"/"Isn't that clever?" set of responses through "What thinking was behind that awful/clever answer?" to "What could I do to find out just what that student really was thinking?", and, of course, "How can what I've just learned inform what I teach next and how I teach it?" Not an overnight process, but one which, when it goes well, can be one of the best possible vehicles for helping a teacher deepen his or her own mathematical understanding, an understanding which, as we all know and loudly decry, is all too frequently frighteningly dilute.
Predictably, Elham stirred up some good conversation. One question in particular that we went around in a number of ways boiled down to: given that there is no way, given who and where we are, that we in our department could carry out that particular kind of teaching of teachers, and given the enormity of the need, what is there that we could do? Where could we make a contribution? Question not resolved, and that piece of conversation needs to be continued--and it will be.
Next day, next event again--but this one was actually an Event, to the extent of rating its own particular newsletter, so that highly unresolved note I shall end this one.